BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 21:  A Baku resident cuts out with an axe  21 September 1991 in Baku a placard showing a portrait of Russain Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet Union in 1920. Azeri National Council voted declaration of independence in 1991.  (Photo credit should read ANATOLY SAPRONENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The Last Days of the Soviet Union

Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union dissolved before our eyes. Here’s a look back at the months leading up to the surprising collapse of a global superpower.

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(FILES) A picture taken on December 26, 1991 shows former President Mikhail Gorbachev (C) holding a glass at a going away party for him held at Moscow's Oktabraskya Hotel. Gorbachev has announced his resignation as President of Soviet Union the day before, thus ending nearly seven years of power and signalled the end of the Soviet Union which had begun in 1917 with the October Revolution. Gorbachev warned that the dissolution of the country might lead to inter-ethnic conflicts and perhaps even all-out war. AFP PHOTO / VITALY ARMAND        (Photo credit should read VITALY ARMAND/AFP/Getty Images)

On December 25, 1991, the red Soviet flag, emblazoned with the iconic hammer-and-sickle, was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. In its place rose the traditional tricolor Russian flag, heralding a transition few could have fathomed: the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet Union, sealed in the grainy glow of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s televised resignation. Above, he raises a glass at his going away party the day after. 

As the bastion of communism fell in a symbolic boon for capitalism and democracy, some people celebrated in the streets, embracing the promise of their newfound freedom. Others mourned the loss of their global might and feared an uncertain future. The young countries of the former Soviet Union then began the daunting task of adopting new governments, new economies, and new ways of life. While hailed in the West as a sign of the inevitable march of progress, the transition to capitalism would be profoundly disorienting for many in the former USSR.

Leading up to its collapse, the Soviet Union was buried deep in economic stagnation. Food shortages and grinding poverty were widespread. Yet many Soviet citizens took pride in their industry, technological advancements, and status as a superpower. The fall of the empire meant not only a change in the world order, but also a change in the way of life and self-perception for many of its inhabitants. Here is a look at the last days of the Soviet Union.

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Smolensky Street shoppers waiting to buy vodka at liquor shop (incl. soldier), behind 2 happy men, 1 stuffing bottles into his bag, other displaying his, trophy-style, in economic reform price hikes-anxious, consumer-unfriendly, shortages & pol. turm.oil-beset union  (Photo by Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In March of 1985, Gorbachev came to the helm of a stagnating Soviet economy. He immediately imposed reforms that ranged from lifting restrictions on freedom of speech to adopting market-oriented economic policies. Perhaps one of Gorbachev’s most stringent and unpopular policies was an anti-alcohol campaign to combat heavy alcoholism in the Soviet Union.  
But limiting the sale of alcohol only led to a black market. Using sugar from the stores, basements became laboratories for homemade moonshine. Store-sold vodka became a coveted commodity. Above, two happy men wait in line to buy vodka in Smolensk, a small city west of Moscow.

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US President George Bush (2nd-L), his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd-R), US First Lady Barbara Bush (R) and Raisa Gorbachev (L) laugh 30 July 1991 in Moscow in Kremlin St Katherine's Hal at the beginning of the two-day US-Soviet Summit dedicated to the disarmament. Nine years of talks were successfully concluded 31 July when two heads of state signed START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which will cut the superpowers's nuclear arsenals by up to a third. The Soviet leader called the treaty "a moral achievement" which replaced "militarised thinking" with "normal human thinking".        (Photo credit should read JONATHAN UTZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. W. Bush put the U.S.-Soviet arms race to a diplomatic end when they signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in July, 1991. The treaty, which was the product of nine years of negotiations, would cut both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals by up to a third. Above, Gorbachev, his wife Raisa, Bush, and U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush pose for a photo at the Kremlin during the summit.

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Two dirty children look out the window. They live in a coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community in Siberia enduring widespread economic hardships.   (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

At a Siberian coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community, two children — their faces dirty — look out the window. Coal-miners and steelworkers toiled under difficult conditions with little compensation. As the Soviet economy stagnated in the 1980s, the economic pressures increased on industry workers.

In an ironic twist, Gorbachev’s economic reforms gave workers the right to strike. In Mar. 1991, the Coal-miner’s union vowed to strike until he resigned.  

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MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 19:  Soviet Army tanks occupy the area near Spassky Gate (L), the entrance to the Kremlin and St. Basil"s Cathedral in Moscow 19 August 1991 after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup was headed 19 August by the members of the self-styled "committee for the state of emergency" or the "gang of eight", including Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. Thousands in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities answered the same day Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin's call to raise barricades against tanks and troops. The collapse of the coup was signaled in the afternoon 21 August when the defence ministry ordered all troops to withdraw from Moscow.  (Photo credit should read ANATOLY SAPRONYENKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Red Army tanks occupied the entrance to the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow on Aug. 19, 1991, in a coup attempt that temporarily deposed Gorbachev, the Soviet president. The coup was led by Communist hardliners known as “the Gang of Eight,” including KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev. The self-proclaimed new government declared a state of emergency and threatened anyone who would speak out against it.

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Moscow, RUSSIAN FEDERATION: (FILES) A picture taken 19 August 1991 shows Russian President Boris Yeltsin (L) standing on top of an armoured vehicle parked in front of the Russian Federation building as supporters hold a Russian federation flag in Moscow. Russia's former president Boris Yeltsin died Monday, a Kremlin spokesman told AFP Monday. He was 76. "Former president Boris Yeltsin died today," the spokesman said. AFP PHOTO FILES  (Photo credit should read DIANE-LU HOVASSE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the coup attempt, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin stood on top of an armored tank outside the White House and denounced the decision to depose Gorbachev, calling for people in the streets to raise barricades against the tanks and troops. In a spontaneous outpouring of civil resistance, students alongside grandmothers rushed to face the tanks. Two days later, on Aug. 21, 1991, the coup collapsed and the defense ministry ordered all troops to withdraw from Moscow. Gorbachev was reinstated as the Soviet President, but Yeltsin had become a star.

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MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 19:  A pro-democracy demonstrator fights with a Soviet soldier on top of a tank parked in front of the Russian Federation building 19 August 1991 after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup was headed 19 August by the members of the self-styled "committee for the state of emergency" or the "gang of eight", including Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. Thousands in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities answered the same day Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin's call to raise barricades against tanks and troops. The collapse of the coup was signaled in the afternoon 21 August when the defence ministry ordered all troops to withdraw from Moscow.  (Photo credit should read DIMA TANIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A pro-democracy demonstrator, answering Yeltsin’s call of resistance, fights with a Soviet soldier on one of the tanks parked in front of the Russian White House. While the military was called upon to aid the coup, many soldiers ended up defecting and siding with Yeltsin, eventually using the tanks to aid the citizens rather than the Communist hardliners.

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Citizens of Moscow line the streets to cheer Soviet tanks flying the tricolored flag of the Russian Federation, as they leave Red Square after protecting the Russian government against a coup by the Communist old guard. The Communists had called the army to defend them, but most of the soldiers defected to the Federation side and helped to end the coup.   (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Residents of Moscow lined the streets to cheer the Soviet tanks that protected the government against the coup. On Aug. 21, 1991, when the coup was officially over, the military left Red Square flying the tricolor flag of the Russian Federation.

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Soviet President Mikhail Gorbatchev makes his first appearance since the military coup Monday, speaking to reporters at his country house on August 21, 1991 shortly before his return to Moscow after the coup failed. Behind Gorbatchev stands Russian vice-president Alexander Rutskoi (2nd R).  AFP PHOTO STEPHANE BENTURA
Photo prise le 21 ao?t 1991 du dirigeant sovi?tique Mikhail Gorbatchev lors de sa premi?re apparition publique depuis le coup d'Etat.        (Photo credit should read STEPHANE BENTURA/AFP/Getty Images)

With the coup attempt over after a mere three days, Gorbachev made his first appearance, speaking to reporters at his country dacha on Aug. 21, 1991. According to reports at the time, the president seemed isolated, scared by a rebellion led by his closest allies and was wary of Yeltsin, who had emerged as his main political rival.

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Thousands of Azeri demonstrators gather in Baku 30 August 1991 to celebrate the proclamation of the country independence. Azerbaijan declared its independence from Soviet Union 30 August 1991. AFP PHOTO JANEK SKARZINSKYH (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

While Gorbachev’s reforms sought to unify the country, the openness he preached resulted in Soviet republics demanding independence from Moscow. On Aug. 30, 1991, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to celebrate the proclamation of its independence.  

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VILNIUS, LITHUANIA - SEPTEMBER 3:  Two young Lithuanians display a hammer and sickle, the communist emblem which was removed from a facade of a building 03 September 1991 in Vilnius as the process of the independence of the Baltic republics culminated with the recognition of the Baltic states by the United States, 02 September 1991. Lithuania declared unilaterally its independence from Soviet Union 11 March 1990.  (Photo credit should read VIRGIS USINAVICIUS/AFP/Getty Images)

On September 2, 1991, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were all declared independent, giving their civilians cause for celebration. Above, two young Lithuanians gleefully display a hammer and sickle, the communist emblem which was removed from a facade of a building in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

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RUSSIA - AUGUST 23:  Unbolting of the dzerjinskia statue In Moscow, Russia On August 23, 1991.  (Photo by Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

After successfully resisting the August coup attempt, more than 10,000 giddy Muscovites gathered on the evening of Aug. 23, 1991, to watch construction cranes dismantle a statute of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared Soviet secret police, which had stood in front of KGB headquarters since 1958. They covered the empty base of the statue with slogans like,"Felix, This Is Your End” and “Free Russia,” and even painted the KGB office with swastikas. 

A elderly woman kisses the steps leading to the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square on October 5, 1991. She among a thousand other demonstrators was protesting the current desecrations of Soviet Founder Lenin's memory since the failed coup. Statues of the Soviet founder have been removed from prominent places and the Mayor of Moscow has recently said he wants to close the Lenin Museum near Red Square. AFP PHOTO VITALY ARMAND (Photo credit should read VITALY ARMAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Not everyone rejoiced over the changes. Above, an elderly woman kisses the steps leading to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square on Oct. 5. 1991. She was among a thousand demonstrators who protested the desecration of Soviet Founder Vladimir Lenin's memory and the removal of Lenin statues from prominent places since the failed coup.

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A Siberian woman stands next to empty shelves in a closed store. Her poor industrial town is suffering widespread economic hardships.   (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Empty shelves were a common sign of economic hardship in the Soviet Union and a byproduct of centralized economic planning. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, nearly every kind of food was rationed in state-owned stores. Private non-state stores began to appear in the 1980s, but the prices of food and consumer goods were often out of reach for the average citizen.

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Wheat Harvest on Collective Farm   (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

A man harvests wheat on a collective farm. Gorbachev introduced reforms that opened up a measure of private ownership over farming, but failed to address fundamental problems of centralized control and government subsidies that lowered incentives to work and production continued to suffer.

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A nurse draws a blood sample from a female AIDS patient in a Moscow hospital. During the political and economic instability of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soviet agencies downplayed the risks of HIV and AIDS. Foreign literature on HIV and AIDS ceased to be translated in 1991, and information campaigns were dismantled. The public gave little consideration to the threat of HIV during this period which is often associated with Russia's "sexual revolution," an increase in IV drug use, and a surge in prostitution. (Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

A nurse draws a blood sample from a female AIDS patient in a Moscow hospital. During the political and economic instability of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soviet agencies downplayed the risks of HIV and AIDS and it was stigmatized as a disease that came from a “corrupt lifestyle,” meaning drug use and homosexuality, which were both illegal.

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Russians must wait in food lines to get whatever goods are available.   (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Muscovites wait in a food lines to buy bread and whatever goods are available amid shortages.

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Baptism ceremony, w. some 100 believers being dunked, as religious revivalist spirit takes root, in Poklony Hills, Leningrad, USSR.  (Photo by Igor Gavrilov/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

A Baptism ceremony outside Leningrad, present-day St. Petersburg, on June 30, 1991. It’s a public scene that wouldn't have been possible just a few years earlier because atheism was the official doctrine of the Communist Party. Under Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev allowed greater freedom for religious groups.

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Russian President Boris Yeltsin (L) and Belarus's Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislav Shushkevich (R) sign a document 08 December 1991 stating that "the Soviet Union as a geopolitical reality [and] a subject of international law has ceased to exist." The document simultaneously announces the creation of a new entity in the post-USSR territory - the Commonwealth of Independent States. The document - now widely known as the Belavezha Agreement - was signed in a government villa in Viskuli in Belarus's Belavezha Forest, which is Europe's only primeval wooded area. (Photo credit should read DAVID BRAUCHLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Soviet republics, fearing another coup attempt, had already declared independence by the time Gorbachev officially resigned. In this photo, taken on Dec. 8, 1991, Yeltsin signs the Belavezha Accords with the new leaders of Ukraine and Belarus. The document declared that the Soviet Union would be officially dissolved and announced the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a new organization to bind the former Soviet countries.

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BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 21:  A Baku resident cuts out with an axe  21 September 1991 in Baku a placard showing a portrait of Russain Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet Union in 1920. Azeri National Council voted declaration of independence in 1991.  (Photo credit should read ANATOLY SAPRONENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A resident of Baku, Azerbaijan, hacks a portrait of Lenin. Azerbaijan joined the Soviet Union in 1920, but declared its independence in the wake of the August coup, along with 10 other republics between August and December.

ANATOLY SAPRONENKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Fireworks bursting over New Year's Eve night-lit Red Square w. Russian flag flying over Kremlin as USSR gives way to new Russian-led commonwealth.  (Photo by Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Fireworks burst over Red Square on New Year's Eve, 1991. The Russian flag flies over the Kremlin as the Soviet Union gives way to a new Russian-led commonwealth.

SERGEI GUNEYEV/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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